Archives For Beatdom Content

Stuff from the pages of Beatdom.

Feeling the Power: The Everlasting Impact of Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit of Brooklyn

 

“…You men writers always put your balls in the way of the story…get your ego out of the way and just tell the story…!”

Hubert Selby Jr. to Henry Rollins, Los Angeles, 1986

 

When Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn was published in 1964, it left a serious wake in the social and literary world of the time that is still felt today. Controversial and even banned upon publication for its graphic language and depictions, the book showcased subject matter and a writing style that has not been rivaled since.

In three-hundred eleven pages, Last Exit to Brooklyn brought a number of momentous achievements. The first came with the writer himself—though a contemporary of the Beat writers, Selby stood apart from his writing peers. William Burroughs wrote about being a fugitive, gay, and on narcotics. So did Allen Ginsberg, albeit in poetry and with political leanings, rather than apolitical novels. Many of their Beat comrades were often collaborative, university-educated intellectuals that explored world travel and Eastern religion, especially by the time many of their hippie devotees caught up to their influence in the late 1960s. By contrast, Selby was a hardened New Yorker, Kentucky-born merchant marine. Selby ran with Brooklyn toughs before leaving school after the ninth grade and following his dad into the Atlantic Ocean shipping industry.

Selby was also a truly broken and damaged human. The public has long been aware of how writers suffer. A lack of money, creativity blocks, relationship issues, and political persecution often top the list of writer indignities. However, it could be argued that no writer suffered quite like Selby, Beat or otherwise. Tuberculosis caught on a ship transporting beef resulted in him losing a lung and having his ribs removed to extract that lung. The subsequent self-induced usage of illegal narcotics resulted in his long addiction to them. As a husband and father with few career options after his hospital release, Selby seemed almost choice-less in the writing career he would eventually undertake.

What is interesting upon reflection about Last Exit to Brooklyn is that it’s not a novel at all. The six vignettes that collect together to make Last Exit—‘Another Day, Another Dollar’,  ‘The Queen Is Dead’, ‘And Baby Makes Three’, ‘Tralala’, ‘Strike’, and ‘Landsend’—are separate narratives depicting an array of characters dealing with their own circumstances. Yet when reading all of them together they become like chapters of a novel or epic, connected by their common themes of poverty, repression, violence, sexuality, and addiction.

Given Selby’s aforementioned background and afflictions, it seems only fitting that all of his personal matters would find themselves running through his typewriter. But Selby took it a step further by being determined to capture the language and atmosphere of the streets he knew. The result was galvanizing. Much has been made of his lack of regard to formal English grammar and syntax—he negated apostrophes, quotation marks, proper margins, and former spelling in favour of slang, run-on sentences, and informal letter casing. But to even read line-by-line the passages of Last Exit to Brooklyn is to still feel the shock that most ‘hardcore’ writers only wish they could do in its capturing of the prostitutes, junkies, and drunken sailors that surrounded him. In ‘The Queen is Dead’, the reader is treated to ‘Thats it HAHA OOO Hey, take it easy with ya tongue…’, while Harry, the repressed machinist-turned-union representative protagonist of ‘Strike’ reflects on his newborn son that his wife Mary has borne him, noting he’d like to ‘…take the goddamn kid and jam it up her snatch…’. To say Selby held nothing back would be polite.

The aftermath of Last Exit to Brooklyn’s release was an exercise in controversy. It was banned in the United Kingdom until writers such as Anthony Burgess defended it, while back in the United States the book was not a critical darling, with many critics attacking its style and subject matter. It did well commercially though, enabling Selby some short term wealth. While Selby himself was lucky to dispel his doctor’s assentation that he’d never live from his illnesses, he continued to suffer from drug and alcohol issues thereafter, along with relationship problems, debt, and further physical ailments. Only further publications such as The Room and Requiem for a Dream re-elevated his personal/professional livelihood before the adaptations of his work for film and television and his moving to the American West Coast to teach creative writing.

It’s also curious to note what came after Last Exit to Brooklyn. New York-based films such as The French Connection and Mean Streets gained popularity. Multimedia artist Andy Warhol produced controversial, New York and outsider-centric events, films, and the now-influential rock and roll band the Velvet Underground. The Velvet’s guitarist-songwriter Lou Reed openly acknowledged his debt to Last Exit to Brooklyn in helping to infuse the content of his song lyrics in songs like ‘Heroin’ and ‘Sister Ray’. Other disciples of Selby such as Richard Price and Jerry Stahl published their own hard street-based narratives in book-form.

Selby died in 2004 but Last Exit to Brooklyn remains. When it was first published, Allen Ginsberg said it would ‘explode like a rusty hellish bombshell over America and still be eagerly read in a hundred years’. Hopefully that will continue to be the case.

Aldous Huxley and Hunter S. Thompson: From Loathing and Fear to Fear and Loathing

What do Aldous Huxley and Hunter S. Thompson have in common? Both were great writers, of course. Both had a fondness for hallucinogens and wrote important books about mind-bending drugs. Both were astute social commentators. However, beyond that there’s not a great deal to link these men, who were very different characters.

But here’s an odd connection between them: Continue Reading…

Remembering Jay DeFeo

I hopped the BART train for the short ride under the bay from Fremont to San Francisco. It was 1995 and the newest incarnation of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art had recently opened. I had heard that the masterwork of my former painting teacher was now on “permanent” display there. It was Jay DeFeo’s The Rose. Continue Reading…

Allegories from the Cave: Burroughs and Trocchi – a Platonic Love

‘Demiurgos scowled, and with that Plato awoke.

Or did he?’

Voltaire

The drug experience has often been perceived as a public and social issue. Yet, drug use and experience are unquestionably a matter of personal choice, as indeed are the consequences. Nevertheless, there is a persistent tension between the public and the private surrounding drug use. The criminalisation and condemnation of drug use in the mid-twentieth century developed entirely within the public sphere. The drug user essentially had no voice and their dependence subjected them to a criminality and demonization. Indeed, the reality of drug use was, and remains, often distorted and misrepresented to the public by politicians and policy makers. A particular case in point being the wide-spread, and persistent view that one drug, like marijuana, if it does not in itself destroy the user’s life, will eventually lead to harder drugs like heroin addiction and criminal activity. But while the public had its spokespersons and rhetoric, like Henry Anslinger, the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, to denounce them, drug users and addicts were subjected to an imbalanced power dynamic with no one to speak for them. What we find in The Yage Letters of William Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book are efforts to publicly privatise the drug experience. Or to put the matter another way: these works attempt to make the public aware of the user’s private experience. The aesthetic form of these books reflects the public performance of private life. Moreover, what these authors accomplish has unique parallels with Plato’s allegory of the cave in which an anonymous hero reveals ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ to his community. Continue Reading…

Gary Snyder: Heart-Beat – A Diptych

“From a certain point onward there is no turning back.  This is the point that must be reached.”

Kafka

 

 

The Six Gallery Reading

 

They came from the streets: from Fillmore and Broadway, from Columbus and East 7th, from Amsterdam and Morningside Drive.  From Lower Burnside.  Cross-country.  Cross-town.  There was talk of a renaissance.

On this first Friday of October, 1955, a waning gibbous moon was rising in the east.  It had been hot that day, eighty-two and windless.  The sun means nothing in San Francisco.  It’s all about the wind.  It would not be a cold night, the fog, mercifully, offshore, but it would be cool.  It would be very cool. Continue Reading…

Allen Ginsberg’s First Trip to Africa

On 12th September, 1947, Allen Ginsberg shipped out as a utility man on a collier, the S.S. John Blair, for the Ponchelet Marine Corporation. He departed from Freeport, seventy-five miles south of Houston, going through Galveston, passing near Cuba and Haiti, whose mountains Allen watched pass by, and headed for Dakar, capital of the federation of French West Africa, in what is now known as Senegal. Dakar, on the western coast of Africa, had a long colonial history, although like most European colonial possessions, in 1947 this one was nearing the end of its subjugation. Once a major trading port for African slaves, Dakar had a strategic location that ensured its privileged position within the French Empire. The French West African territories were placed under the control of a single governor, who was located in Dakar, and so it had become a seat of power in the region. Indeed, by the early twentieth century, it had become a major city in the empire. As rights were slowly and inconsistently handed out to “French subjects” – ie the Africans whose homelands had been annexed by the French – the people born in Dakar were first to be given the right to vote, and it was from here that the first ever black African elected to the French government was born, Blaise Diagne. A year before Allen’s visit, the French Empire had rebranded itself the French Union to give the appearance of equality, and more limited rights were being rolled out; however, more substantial change was in the horizon, with independence just over a decade away. Continue Reading…

Gonzo Personas: Hunter S. Thompson and John G. Clancy

 

This article first appeared in Beatdom #17.

A little over 10 years ago—February 20, 2005—“gonzo” journalist, Hunter S. Thompson, stuck the barrel of a Smith & Wesson in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Eight months later—October 1, 2005—Hunter’s long-time friend and lawyer, John G. Clancy, died in a rollover on a lonely highway in northern New Mexico.

***

In the summer of 2013, the written and recorded correspondence between Hunter S. Thompson and John G. Clancy was released to the public by Clancy’s widow. Some of these materials provide documentation for several interesting story lines, including evidence that Thompson’s relationship with Clancy may have influenced the development of Hunter’s own “gonzo” persona. Continue Reading…

Beat Family Values: The Typical American Family, and the Beats’ Roll in its Downfall

 

The Beat Movement scared the hell out of America. After all, the Beats were dirty, they were obscene, they were lefties, queers, trouble-makers; they were everything that post-war America did not want, and their work threatened the very fabric of society.

But what was that society made up of? What were the atoms at the core of American culture in the post-war era? ‘The Family’; the perfect, pristine embodiment of new American values, nestled away in suburbia with a bright white picket fence out front and smiles to match.  The Beat represented the antithesis of this, and so the Beats were trouble. Continue Reading…

A List of Countries Visited by Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg was a true citizen of the world, at home wherever he travelled. Although he never actually left the United States – barely travelling more than a hundred miles from his place of birth – during his youth, in his early twenties he quickly learned the skills necessary to travel for long periods of time. He could be a typical tourist with guidebook in hand, buying souvenirs and clicking away with his camera, but he was also capable of journeying for years at a time, sleeping in fields, making friends with people from impossibly different backgrounds. He could communicate with people regardless of language and survive on little to no money. Everywhere he went, he brought his ideas to share, but also learned from all the people he met. Continue Reading…

Baraka, Transitions: The man and the poetry

Tenements absorbed the sun to brick and spread the heat like a steam iron, pressing ideas flat, airless, into our street lives.  Waiting for the number to come out, welfare wary, drinking cheap wine, whining about the sure memory of the south, gaining minute reputations, habitually wanting and needing things, observed nodding to nada with the “white lady.” Colored, and recently “Black” by most definition, coping & cropping personalities to a new South in Harlem… Continue Reading…